JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA—Last night's GOP debate was a smashing success for Mitt Romney. For once, he had been properly coached on answers to rebut Newt Gingrich. He turned the tables on the former speaker, using the same confrontational tone that Gingrich had in past debates to great success.
Given Romney's rising poll numbers after Gingrich's ineffectual debate performance on Monday, last night's spectacle should be enough to cement Romney as the favorite for Tuesday's primary in Florida. The former Massachusetts governor didn't coast through entirely unscathed, though. Rick Santorum unleashed an aggressive attack on the topic that's expected to cause the most trouble for Romney among primary voters: health-care reform in Massachusetts. This was the expected albatross around Romney's campaign—not his experience at Bain.
Santorum minced no words yesterday, accusing Romney of being Obama in a richer suit. "What Governor Romney just said is that government-run, top-down medicine is working pretty well in Massachusetts and he supports it," he said.
Santorum is right: Despite Romney's protestations that Obamacare is a socialist menace but Romneycare is not, the two systems are at heart the same.
Romney wasn't quite sure how to respond. "Rick, I make enough mistakes in what I say, not for you to add more mistakes to what I say," he began, before launching into a full-scale defense of the individual mandate. "If you don't want to buy insurance, then you have to help pay for the cost of the state picking up your bill," he said, "Because under federal law if someone doesn't have insurance, then we have to care for them in the hospitals, give them free care."
That's the same argument Obama will make to defend the Affordable Care Act's mandate. Romney can't easily turn around and claim that Obama's plan decays capitalism when there will be abundant evidence of him proffering the same ideas. As Prospect alum Adam Serwer notes, the most remarkable fact isn't merely that Obama and Romney took the same practical solution to their health care bills, but rather that the Republican debate audience appeared to hold no qualms with those tenets when they were wrapped in conservative rhetoric.
I caught up with one of Romney's past critics following the debate. Many in the media expected former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty to be Romney's most viable opponent, and that he would center his campaign on opposition to Massachusetts' health-care reform. The death knell for Pawlenty's campaign came when he was unable to stand by his attacks against Romney during one of the early debates. He's since endorsed Romney and travels around as one of his primary surrogates. When I caught some alone time with him in the spin room following the debate, Pawlenty had nothing but praise for Romney. For Pawlenty, Romney has walked the line between defending his law while still harnessing hatred for all things Obama. "He's made it very clear to me—he's said very repeatedly and strongly—that he's 100 percent committed to repealing Obamacare and I take him at his word," Pawlenty told me. "I believe him."